FTC looking into helmet claims

Posted Jan. 14, 2011, at 4:18 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 14, 2011, at 8:35 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Federal Trade Commission says his agency is looking into marketing claims that some football helmets can help reduce concussions, responding to a senator who wants the FTC to investigate what he called “misleading safety claims and deceptive practices” in the sale of new helmets and reconditioning of used ones.

“We agree that these are serious concerns, and will determine what action by this agency may be appropriate,” FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz wrote to Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.Mex.

“Given the dangers that concussions pose for young athletes engaged in contact sports, it is essential that advertising for products claiming to reduce the risk of this injury be truthful and substantiated,” he added.

In the letter, obtained Friday by The Associated Press, Leibowitz said that issues involving serious health concerns — especially those for children and young adults — are a “high priority for the commission.” He said the commission would look at several factors “in determining whether to take enforcement or other action.”

Leibowitz was responding to a Jan. 4 letter from Udall, who said he was “troubled by misleading marketing claims by Riddell, a leading helmet maker that supplies the official helmet to the National Football League.”

He quoted Riddell’s website as saying that “research shows a 31 percent reduction in the risk of concussion in players wearing a Riddell Revolution football helmet when compared to traditional helmets.”

“Yet there is actually very little scientific evidence to support the claim,” Udall said, adding that the voluntary industry standard for football helmets doesn’t specifically address concussion prevention or reduction. The senator also mentioned another helmet manufacturer, Schutt Sports.

Riddell, which has called Udall’s allegations “unfounded and unfair,” said in a statement Friday that it welcomed “any scrutiny and review. For the public’s benefit, we hope that the FTC will provide greater scrutiny of all helmet manufacturers.” The company also said that while its research on reducing concussions was encouraging, “we can’t stress enough that no helmet will prevent all concussions.”

At the time of Udall’s letter, Schutt Sports said it never claimed its helmets were “concussion reducing.” On Friday, the company said it didn’t have anything to add in response to the FTC letter.

FTC spokeswoman Betsy Lordan said the commission could decide to launch an investigation, but wouldn’t confirm or deny one until it either closed the investigation without bringing charges, or announced it was bringing charges of deceptive advertising.

Stephen Ross, a former FTC lawyer who now directs the Penn State Institute for Sports Law, Policy and Research, said the commission has several options if it decides to pursue action against companies, including a cease-and-desist order.

In a statement, Udall said he was “pleased and encouraged that Chairman Leibowitz shares my serious concerns about misleading football helmet safety claims in advertising by sports equipment companies. This is a safety issue with the potential to impact every child that plays football.”

Last fall, Udall asked the Consumer Product Safety Commission to investigate whether safety standards for football helmets are adequate to protect young players from concussions. CPSC head Inez Tenenbaum testified at a hearing last month that the commission will work to help improve helmet safety standards and testing.

Concussions and other head injuries are receiving increased attention at all levels of sports, from the NFL on down to Pop Warner, the nation’s oldest and largest youth football organization.

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